Developments are ruining area, Eugene residents say

EUGENE — Deborah Healey said a successful year in her neighborhood is measured by how much tear gas is administered. A good week is when her blue- and white-trimmed home doesn't shake from a car's speaker bass.

It's a peaceful weekend, Healey says, when it's quiet by 2 a.m.

"You have to be odd to live here," she says.

But to Healey, it's home.

Healey, a 57-year-old American English Institute instructor at the University of Oregon, has lived in the west university neighborhood since 1993 with her partner, Steven Baker, who has owned the home since the mid-1970s.

In the past four years, several large apartment complexes, designed to meet the city's urban density goals, have been built in both the west and south university neighborhoods. The complexes have resulted in higher concentrations of students and, according to some area residents, have contributed to what they categorize as a rough fall full of parties and drunken deeds.

Homeowners say the developments are eroding the character of their neighborhoods. But they don't necessarily see eye to eye with city officials who preach the gospel of urban density, or with developers who say they're just trying to accommodate the area's increasing population — which consists mostly of student renters, not homeowners.

More than 98 percent of residences in the west university neighborhood are rental properties, and 70 percent of residents in that neighborhood identify themselves as students; 79 percent of properties in the south university neighborhood are rentals, according to city officials, neighborhood association members and census data, though no recent surveys have been taken. Nestled near and among the rental homes and large apartment complexes are historic homes and tree-lined streets. Contemporary meets vintage, but the two styles struggle to blend.

City Councilor Alan Zelenka, who represents the two neighborhoods, said he knows that development in the south and west university neighborhoods can threaten the character of the neighborhoods, but all in all, he sees the developments as positive and high quality.

"It's good to the extent that it has replaced really dilapidated houses that are eyesores," he said. "Some of the developers do a good job of keeping with Northwest character."

Zelenka said neighborhood residents, city officials and developers have put forth strong effort to keep the neighborhoods livable.

The city's infill compatibility standards task team, which was created in 2007 and met once a month for two years, sought to lessen the impact of "infill" — the process of accommodating growing population by building upward rather than outward — in neighborhoods across the city.

The team, composed of neighborhood representatives, professional developers, designers and housing advocates, created 17 recommendations to present before the City Council with the goal of amending the city's land use code.

Two task team recommendations relating to the university neighborhoods already have gone through a round of public hearings before the city's planning commission and council: building height and parking provisions.

Terri Harding, a senior planner with the city and project manager for the task team, said residents from both the south and west university neighborhoods are pushing to lower the maximum building height in their areas.

But balancing the needs of homeowners and an increasing student population is a difficult task, Harding said.

"We have to be very careful," she said. "It's a huge challenge. One of our concerns is, if we decrease building height, we will not be able to meet our density goals."

The city's minimum density target in high-density areas is to have between 29 and 112 units per acre. Zelenka said density targets can be met with buildings that are no higher than four stories; data gathered from members of both the west and south university neighborhoods support his assertion.

"At four or five stories, you can reach maximum density," he said. "To go beyond that height is for design flexibility."

Proponents say the goal of lowering building height requirements is to provide a gradual transition from larger apartment complexes to single-family homes while still allowing the city to reach its density goals. The team proposed that the maximum building height in a high-density zone, dubbed R-3, be lowered from 50 feet to 35 feet, and building heights in the highest density zone, known as R-4, drop from 120 feet to anywhere from 35 feet to 90 feet, depending on building location and lot size.

In a letter to the planning commission, Laura Potter, government affairs director for the Home Builders Association of Lane County, cited the need for "campus development (to) be able to go up" and asked the planning commission to recommend the 90-foot limit to the council — which it did — even though an infill task team subcommittee had recommended a maximum height of 65 feet in most cases.

Carolyn Jacobs, vice president of the South University Neighborhood Association and a member of the infill task team, said she's not opposed to the notion of neighborhood density — she just doesn't want to see tall buildings towering over single-family homes.

Because of zoning patterns in her neighborhood, buildings up to 50 feet tall could abut single-family homes.

Jacobs has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years. The tall, modern buildings located between 18th and 20th avenues have eroded the character of the neighborhood to such a degree, she said, that she doesn't even consider that area part of her neighborhood anymore.

Unfortunately, building height is not the only problem cited by residents. Parking problems and a lack of open space also are on their radar.

Healey, who is secretary of the West University Neighbors, says it's not uncommon to see cars parked bumper to bumper in front of a home, another car in the driveway and another car smack-dab in the center of the home's lawn in the west university neighborhood.

Residents in the south and west university neighborhoods say newer developments have pushed parking issues from awful to nightmarish in a hurry.

Off-street parking for apartment complexes is administered on a per-unit basis. But the problem with that math, residents say, is it doesn't take into account how many people live in each unit. Whether each unit has one bedroom or five doesn't matter; only one off-street parking space is required.

In the task team's recommendations, parking in the two neighborhoods would be based on the number of unit bedrooms. Such a change, according to information presented by the task team to the City Council, would increase required parking in the university neighborhoods by up to 80 percent.

In a letter to the planning commission, university student Sam DeBow said she either has to park far from her south university residence or waste time circling the block waiting for open spaces. DeBow, a member of the UO's women's lacrosse team, said she needs her car to travel to and from practices during bad weather or at night, when walking or riding a bike would not be safe.

"My car is a necessity, not a luxury," she wrote.

Another concern related to parking in the west university neighborhood is a lack of open space. Only one park beckons west university neighbors to come outside and play — in a place they are supposed to.

Healey says large apartment complexes typically lack private backyards, so residents are limited in where they can go.

"When you're losing public open space and private open space, the neighborhood becomes less livable," she said. "If people don't have private open space, they will be in the streets."

With the close quarters come behavioral problems, residents say.

Pamela Miller, who has lived in the south university neighborhood for more than 20 years, told the City Council this month that she lives in an area that claims both a historic neighborhood and a "student ghetto."

She said she was using the term "ghetto" in the word's "original sense of a monocultural population in a limited space."

The problem with the density abutting the south university neighborhood, Miller said, is that it lacks the diversity most urban areas have.

"In a concentrated student population, you have, shall we say, a smaller range of social activities that occur — and they tend to occur with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm — and volume," she told the council.

This fall, Miller said, she has noticed an increase in partying.

"It's going on all weekend, and it's going on sometimes even on weeknights," she said.

Healey seconds that observation.

"Thursday is the new Friday," she said.

Healey and home-owners in the south university neighborhood say garbage from parties is littered over lawns and sidewalks weekend after weekend. The ubiquituous plastic red cup can be found on nearly every block, they say.

University student Jackson Hite sees the issue from both sides. He's a 20-year-old UO junior studying public planning — and he's also president of the West University Neighbors.

Hite said he became president after attending a neighborhood meeting for a class assignment. Though he doesn't always see eye to eye with 20-year residents, he said that together he believes they are making progress.

Members of the association were open to the idea of his presidency, he said, especially because of his ties to the university and to students.

Hite said he wishes more students would become involved in neighborhood issues, but concedes that "the average student doesn't show up."

Many students, he said, view the Eugene community as a transitional home, and don't appear conscious of the effect their behavior has on the neighborhoods. Hite said he lives behind Max's Tavern on 13th Avenue, and passers-by must truly believe that the neighborhood does not slumber until after 2 a.m.

Hite and the university are both pushing for students to become more thoughtful neighbors.

Greg Rikhoff, UO director of community relations, said the worst student behavior often occurs during fall term because it takes students a while to "mellow out."

To help students become or remain respectful, Rikhoff said, the university has beefed up its community relations efforts. Now, community members can use an e-mail service, dubbed "Good Neighbor," to make formal complaints about student behavior, though the university has no legal authority.

So far, about six residents have used the service to make formal complaints, Rikhoff said, while many more have used the service to provide the university with updates about their neighbors' behavior.

"Part of it is an attempt to be responsive to neighborhood concerns," he said. "The university's success is dependent on the character of the neighborhood."

Residents in the south university neighborhood say they appreciate the university's efforts, and that the collaboration must continue if their neighborhood is to be preserved.

If homeowners and officials don't act now, Jacobs said, the south university neighborhood will become a mirror of the west university neighborhood — where fewer than 50 residences are owner-occupied, according to neighborhood association members.

The sustainability of the south university neighborhood, including Edison Elementary School, is dependent on keeping families in the neighborhood and owner-occupied residences, Jacobs said.

If large developments continue, rampant partying will become the norm, houses will continue to be turned into rentals, and homeowners will flock to the city's outer edge, Jacobs said.

It's not a vision that Jacobs wants to embrace.

"I don't want to move," she said. "I don't want to drive into town all the time."

Healey knows the feeling well. She remembers when all of her west university neighbors lived in owner-occupied homes. Now, they are all rentals.

The west university neighborhood is nearly suffocating, she said. Breathing room is scarce.

"I feel like it's a can of sardines," she said.

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